Native son

Kevin Johnson was born in 1966 to a teenage mom in one of Sacramento’s toughest neighborhoods—Oak Park—during a time when poverty and drugs plagued the neighborhood. Miraculously, thanks in a large way to supportive grandparents, Johnson survived childhood and went on to become the stuff of local legend: an NBA all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, a mega-millionaire and, since retiring, a nationally recognized sportscaster for NBC.

But that’s not all.

No matter what fame and fortune came his way, Johnson never lost sight of his roots. He never lost the idea that he was meant to do something about the neighborhood kids who weren’t as fortunate as he. He established St. Hope (Help Our People Excel) Academy in Oak Park to provide a “home-like atmosphere” for at-risk kids and, more recently, he established a similar program—“built on character, formed by education”—in Phoenix. Johnson has sent many of his St. Hope “kids” to college and even law school.

Now Johnson has announced a new project—this one geared at the economic revitalization of a now-dead commercial core area in Oak Park at 3rd Avenue, 35th Street and Broadway. Johnson dreams of re-invigorating the area by attracting a live theater, a large restaurant, shops, offices and apartments. The Sacramento City Council has wisely backed the project with $2.5 million in loans and grants. And local restaurateur Randy Paragary, who owns 10 local eating establishments, seems likely to get on board the project as well. Paragary, who at first offered “consultant” help to Johnson on the restaurant he was proposing, was quickly convinced by K.J. to do more than advise on the project. Paragary is now reportedly researching soul food restaurants across the country, hoping to come up with a hybrid mix of soul and traditional American foods for the site.

K.J.’s welcome entry into the sphere of local economic redevelopment in a poor neighborhood reminds us of the efforts of another post-NBA Johnson—Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Magic has succeeded wildly these last few years in his aggressive drive to run movie theaters and open malls in low-income areas of Los Angeles, Washington, Detroit and other urban centers. He’s particularly helped change the face of South Central Los Angeles by pushing the notion that urban redevelopment isn’t charity, it’s just good business.

Is it the game of basketball that taught both Johnsons to give as well as they got? Because something seemed to bestow on these two the belief that revitalization isn’t a dream, that anything is possible—even the tackling of enormous societal ills—if a single human being determines to make it so.

We can’t wait to see what K.J. develops in Oak Park. And we’re thankful that one of Sacramento’s most accomplished native sons continues to bring his positive focus back home.